I’ve been reading a wonderful book, “The City Is My Monastery: A Contemporary Rule of Life” by Richard Carter. My wife bought it for me when we last visited St. Martin in the Fields in London last year. It outlines the Nazareth Community established by Richard Curtis, a place where all may come, whether rich or poor, whatever their background, to participate in the common life of Jesus. Curtis, on staff at St. Martin’s and a former monk, reveals his personal journey of discovering community, contemplation, and peace in the heart of London.
What follows is just one of many gorgeous prayer poems found in its pages. A highly recommended read.
I love when my wife brings the Prayers of the People in our liturgy. They are prayers that live in that uncomfortable space between pastoral nurture and prophetic nudging. This was her prayer from our service this morning, Sunday, December 29, 2019.
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The first time I stepped into a Covenant Church in December 2003, I was struck by how it felt both evangelical and liturgical, like a Baptist Oreo cookie with a Lutheran Center. Afterwards, a man explained that one of the denominational distinctives is the reality of freedom in Christ. Essentially, what that means is that, on many issues we can agree to disagree agreeably. Our new Brazilian friend, Fabio, on the Serve Globally Europe team, calls the Covenant, ‘the Dog with the least fleas.’
This morning, instead of the Lord’s prayer, we’ll close with lyrics written by U2. Bono, the lead singer grew up in Dublin in the Catholic south of Ireland the product of a scandalous marriage during the height of IRA terrorism. His father, Catholic. His mother Protestant.
From our side of the pond, we can see the fighting has little do with Christianity, and everything to do with religious tribalism. Because he’s seen the human cost of not seeking peace, his background uniquely shaped him to write songs about it.
“One” was written at a time when the band were fighting over their direction. The core lyric, ‘we’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.’ It makes Bono an ideal Covenanter!
Will you join me in prayer?
Carry each other – a prayer
Our beloved Father in heaven,
We’re closer than ever before in history to people all over the world, and yet there are growing divisions and the rise of tribalism where once there was peace. Help your church in the world to answer conflicts and divisions with love and justice. Send workers where needed to bring physical and spiritual healing, and help Christians who live in places with surplus to provide for those who go without. May the smallest pinprick of light we bring swallow much darkness (thanks to my hubby for that line!).
It seems each time it’s my turn to pray, our nation is more divided than the previous time. Across our nation, churches and communities, Lord, we thank you for those who serve graciously and honestly. We pray that where leaders fail to do their tasks well, or uphold the oaths they take, may they be replaced.
Whether we identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, let us each conserve the rule of law, be moderate in our judgement of others and wise of those who seek to use the church for their own political ends. Let us be liberal in our love toward each other, especially those who aren’t part of our tribe.
Lord, in this time of division, let us hold onto hope and not be hijacked by our fears. Let us be wary of those who tell us who is out to get us and who we should blame. Let us remember those who seek to froth up our grievances with a paycheque attached to promoting those views. Help us to remember that conflict sells.
Lord, let us remember our nation is built upon the separation of church and state and that history shows us again and again when the church gets too close to power it is weakened. Therefore, help us to be cautious of Christian leaders who have become intoxicated by the proximity to power.
And we pray for those in our own church across the nation who once attended but have lost their way. Many see the church being committed partisans, blaming others, instead of committed Christians. May we show them, Lord, that our allegiance lies to Christ above all else, and that despite our differences, in you we are one. We are not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One of the things most human is our shared love of story. The swashbuckling reveries of grandiose characters in drama or comedy, romance or tragedy, that bespeak our common existence. We are, for a few moments at least, transported beyond the banalities of daily existence into another world. A world of imagination. A world where anything is possible. A world where rights are wronged, where grown men cry and grown women conquer. A world that brings hope and the promise of a new tomorrow.
Let’s admit shall we that, whether or not you are a person of faith who believes in the literal, historic events of Jesus, an ardent atheist, or even someone of different faith, one can hardly deny that his person and work make for an amazing story. Try as he might to keep things tight and under wraps, he was consistently headline worthy. Even in his day he was deeply polarizing.
He certainly said some weird stuff. In one encounter with a Syrophoenician woman he stated, rather insultingly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dude, really? To the casual observer, he could be whiny, “how long must I endure this faithless generation?” Like, wow. One word: take a breath (hyphens not included).
He is as enigmatic as he is tragic. Hard to pin down and easy to argue about, Jesus never submitted well to easy stereotypes or casual name-brand philosophies.
The blessed among us grew up reading or listening to stories. Those without this experience are truly the poorer for it and to be pitied above all else. To tell a story is to welcome mystery, fantasy, possibility, into our lives. Everyone needs that.
The Bible is literally a collection of stories, both literal and otherwise. It’s arc is that of a journey. It is one great exodus from a place of slavery, woe, and darkness into the Promised Land of freedom, joy, and light. What was seen as macro in the Old Testament through a nation – her monarchs, mayhem, and movements was pictured later in the living allegory of love itself, Jesus the Christ.
I recently came upon this remarkably inventive little meme. It is wonderfully succinct and simple. It is a one-stop shop for the incarnational story of redemption. A creative at heart, I have always marveled at the unending possibilities the sacred calendar offers for creativity. Drenched in changing colours, themselves a metaphor of deeper spiritual-theological realities to which they point, possessing interesting descriptors like “Ordinary Time” or “Epiphany.” It is a playground of possibility.
But what I love most about the church calendar is how it celebrates our common love of story in one great story, retold every year. It is the ongoing reminder that every moment of every day of our lives is something holy. We live the mundane in the well-lit streets of God’s neighbourhood. And nothing gets wasted. The times of our lives are mimicked in the smaller patterns of the Paschal Mystery, itself mirrored in the sacred calendar.
Anticipation of Advent.
Our longings are always met by God, but in unexpected ways; in little things, unseen or forgotten things; out of the way things. In pregnant teenage moms and confused dads. In the injustices of supply and demand, leading to scandalous birthing conditions.
Incarnation at Christmas.
In shivering babes without homes. A child far beyond their parents’ ability to understand or control grows to be a man of profound ability and dubious abilities. A man with an unending capability for love of the least and worst.
Revelation in Epiphany.
These longings are experienced by everyone, not just the acceptable, country-club religious. Even pagan philosophers, totally outside the proper parameters of faith and, as such, acceptability, find their way to Jesus. And they came not just out of curiosity. They came to worship. Try that one on for size, o ye doctrine police!
Repentance through Lent.
The richest things are found not in laughter and smiles but through the forgiveness of wrongdoing, the weighing of life in the balance and grace received to make up that which lacks. There is good stuff to be found in the dark soil of penitence. Here we meet God at His/Her most vulnerable. The self-giving God who pursues death that we might have life.
Resurrection at Easter.
The sacred story, although confusing, rough and often dark, is one that only gets better in the telling. Death means little to a God always busting at the seams to live. The grave was a blip on the screen to Jesus whose eternal realities were too intimidating for death. Up from the grave He arose – and we with Him.
New life at Pentecost
The Gospel was never intended as a window-dressing tale to be told to well-dressed children from gold-gilded pages. It is a story as fresh and wild and untamable as the God who is its author. That story becomes powerfully ours at Pentecost.
The rest of the story in Ordinary Time
We then must learn to inhabit these truths. Let them inhabit us. Learn them. Trust them. Doubt them. Love them. Hate them. Deny them. Reintegrate them. Love them. Let them love us, until we start all over again.
Why not learn to live in such a way that the immensity of grace finds place in us at every point of our calendar? I pray that, for you as for me, this story becomes ever more our own to cherish, to tell.
‘A day late and a dollar short’ as they say and we pull up to the front door of Michindoh Conference Center. The air is brisk, although not as might be expected on a winter day in mid-January Michigan. The quiet here jumps out of the bushes and sings from the frozen trees. The lake, too, is frozen; seemingly dead, unmoving. It shivers under its own weight of wet and white.
There are hints of voices, of faces and laughter and prayers afoot; the gift of extended family burnt into the very carpet and walls. Memory serves well here and I am struck by its power. For this place represents something far beyond itself, a kind of knowing – the embrace of God through the embrace of friends. And I still feel that embrace like a long look down a hallway full of portraited eyes, the well-known smiles of those who truly know me, who long to be known.
For me, Spring Arbor University’s MSFL (Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership) program was the end of a long search and the beginning of the best journey. And its demise demands a few words said in remembrance; both lament and praise.
In a sad twist of irony, this final Residency finished early. The annual sojourn to varied points around the country over more than a decade formed the unifying core of people, process, and prayer. With still another day to go that included a mini-concert to which I was looking forward (my modesty remains unchanged, despite God’s efforts), we had an early lunch and, with hardly a word, stepped into a travel van and barreled down Michigan back roads toward Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
The short but transformative ride of the Spring Arbor University Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership comes to an ignominious , gently uncelebratory end. Twelve (or was it thirteen?) years were bundled up tight, held together by the prayers and pain, tears and triumphs of those who benefited from all it gave.
I remember its early years as clearly as mirrored sunlight. Filling the air was the visceral scent of a journey about to unfold. It hummed under our feet like standing on a factory floor. Seismic shiftings of spiritual earth began to crack open our darkness, but wide enough to drink deep the new wine of God’s quaking Spirit. Tangible expectation akin to those deliciously hopeful moments before physical touch sat enthroned in hungry hearts. It was erotic in the holiest sense.
With MSFL, it felt like I’d finally stumbled onto something worth surrendering to fully. Through all my academic career, wed to a curious soul, the answer waited agonizing years before its fruition in this MSFL program.
I had already attended seminary at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary (a veritable cascade of uncomfortable ironies in the title alone). I enrolled at Regent College, twice, and then at George Fox Seminary, twice. Nothing seemed to fit just right. Like settling for one thing because the thing hadn’t shown up yet.
MSFL was a clarion call to suckle the teet of God. That, indeed, I did, along with dozens of others over as many years. To hang out online with people who are not freaked out at your language, one’s love for weird stuff like darkness, light, candle-fed shadow, the deafening silence of the God who sings – a language that includes words like lectio divina, hesychasm, apophatic theology, theosis, and dark night of the soul is better than anything I can name.
Friday, January 12
Travel day. I sip my radically sub-par coffee made from suspicious-looking water. The sounds of the hotel are awake, humming with the activities of a morning, also awake. The gym calls but so does my bed, comfortable as hotel beds go.
My journal won the mental coin toss. My thoughts turn once more to the MSFL era, now winding down like a beautiful car that apparently just ran out of gas on the long and winding road of enlightenment. Stranded now, it awaits the buzzards of time and urgency to bear it away into the great garage in the sky. It is full of the rusty, dusty and musty ideas of days gone by. Ones that never got on the road but, like MSFL, simply ran into the ditch somewhere. Others never had the right parts, so they never got going in the first place. Still others raced out the door, speeding like bullets down the road to success but, ill-prepared for the dangers of that road, flung itself wildly into tailspin, crash and burn.
Besides the study itself, much of my time was spent in writing and facilitating liturgy for our annual January Residencies. It was a job in which I happily splashed about like a precocious little piggy. Moreover, I enjoyed having done so from the very beginning of the program when dozens of us sardined into a large classroom on the campus of Spring Arbor University to dream, pray and wonder at what the future might hold.
MSFL was a good idea. It still is, despite its demise. The irresistible gravitas of this program combined with the unassailable depth and quality of what it was designed to offer make this a profound loss indeed. What beautiful audacity to dream of a program uniquely constructed for the soul; for the benefit of shaping better lives and, together, a better world. As Tony Campolo says, quoting I know not who, “we seek to build a world where it is easier to be good.”
This was the aim and continual hope of MSFL. It was aimed directly at our humanity in all its complexities. It sought to embrace the heart in the arms of Jesus in order that we learn to do likewise. The very idea was captivating; not only for me but for numerous others as well.
Moreover, it held great appeal to others like me for whom the ideas, culture and practices of contemporary evangelism no longer tantalized. It titillated one’s spiritual hunger and curiosity, daring to use the pre-Reformation language of soul, sacrament, and sanctus of God. It presumed to challenge a rational, punitive, positional, scientific Christianity with a relational, transformative, restorative, mystical one. It sought to assert with insistence and intentionality that, to aim at the soul is, by extension, to aim at the world in which it finds context, meaning, and mission. It trumpeted life in proximity to the Divine dance that is Father, Son, and Spirit, spurning (or at least questioning) a hobby faith.
These claims were adopted and adored by the courageous (foolhardy?) folks tasked with leading us. Their commitment to formation, not just education, put it at odds with the academic establishment. Those for whom education consists primarily in growing heads, overstuffed and heavy, atop weary bodies and thirstier hearts, could still find something here. The program was often as intellectually rigorous as it was personally challenging. As such, it stood squarely against the prevailing dualism housed generally in the west, most specifically in evangelicalism.
Learning to think deeply is hard. Learning to live deeply is horrifying. The discipleship moniker is not “come and learn.” It is “come, and die.” No wonder it was a marketing impossibility. Shiny brochures, sleek websites and leading figures were one thing. Faithfully portraying the inherent dangers of communal vulnerability – and charging for it – was nigh impossible! Like a dead guy receiving his doctor’s bill.
MSFL was also an experiment in hybrid-learning experience. A primarily online degree, it asked the fair question, “can spiritual community, predicated upon spiritual development, be accomplished online?” Could a program erected on the belief that the spiritual formation enterprise is, at root, a relational-narrative one be successful in an isolated chat room?
The answer? Abso-freakin’-lutely! The cohort with whom I was blessed to journey, we lovingly dubbed “Conspirators”, ratified in seconds what we’d already experienced. The depth of our online life spilled over naturally in our face to face reconnaissance. Our first meeting wasn’t even love at first sight. That had already occurred previously in weeks of close-knit cyber-chat.
It was a consummation.
Now, with the double-edged sword of sadness and gratitude, I turn my head away from Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership to the ongoing sojourn of My Slowly Forming Life. The former gave me inspired tools for the latter. The former gave me memories with which to build the former. With words certain to reveal my age, “we have the technology; we can rebuild him.” That was MSFL.
French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”
She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.
Every bible verse she ever memorized.
Every note she ever took in every bible study.
Every family member’s name.
But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?
A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.
Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.
Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.
And he can’t stop thinking about her.
What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.
In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”
James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”
What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.
Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.
“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.
St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.
We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.
Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea.
Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.